A new way of doing politics?
“Weird” was former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s description of the Liberal National Party bombshell in Queensland.
“Either the smartest thing the LNP ever did or the dumbest thing they ever did,” said former Queensland Labor premier Peter Beattie, seemingly with grudging respect at the chutzpah of the deed.
For Campbell Newman had suddenly quit as lord mayor of Brisbane in a bid to become premier of Queensland.
And not, as might have been expected, by being parachuted into a safe parliamentary seat at a by-election.
Instead, Newman will fight against a sitting Labor member at the next state election – a minister no less (Kate Jones) – and needing a 7 percent swing to win.
Most amazingly, Newman has taken over effective leadership of the LNP opposition – and he’s not even in parliament.
No wonder premier Anna Bligh is sounding the alarms and talking of the perils of extra-parliamentary interference as possible justification for an early election.
But an interesting aspect of the Newman experiment is that it could open the way to a new way of doing politics in Australia.
It seems forever that people have bewailed the lack of talent in parliaments. If only brilliant outsiders could be given the chance to come in and shake things up without the usual years of time-serving, so the argument goes.
Newman may show how this is done. His crazy-brave strategy may show what is possible. Whenever we have a moribund opposition (or government for that matter) lacking an obvious leader, there may now be the opportunity to cast more widely for someone game enough to take on the battle from outside, win a marginal seat and lead his or her team home to victory.
Just as future premiers could come from the ranks of local government or from other institutions, future prime ministers could come from state parliaments. At the peak of her popularity and with the ALP in the doldrums, Anna Bligh could have reached for leadership of federal Labor, as could Peter Beattie before her.
Winning the top job from a state base is exactly what happens in the United States, where four of the last five presidents have come from state governorships.
Queensland premier Bjelke-Petersen tried it with the “Joh for Canberra” campaign in 1987 and failed miserably, taking then Liberal opposition leader John Howard down with him. But that time the conservative parties were at war with one another.
What is unusual – and essentially presidential – about Newman’s challenge is the notion of party leadership from outside parliament. Yet this is exactly what happens in local government.
Mayors in Queensland are popularly elected. This can have the odd result – as happened in Brisbane in 2004 – that a mayor of one party presides over a council dominated by another party. But another effect is the quandary for an opposition seeking to win power.
In the Westminster system, opposition leaders don’t put at risk their parliamentary future at election time. But an opposition leader from within council who wants to challenge a successful mayor at an election has to resign his or her ward so as to take on the incumbent head-to-head for the popular vote.
It’s a do-or-die contest. Lose, and you’ve lost not only the top job, but your council seat. Against a popular mayor, most opposition leaders choose to remain safely in council, and let someone else go for the mayoral prize.
The last Labor lord mayor of Brisbane, Tim Quinn, took the reins from Jim Soorley without a by-election when Soorley quit early. Quinn gave up his ward to be mayor for a year, and lost the mayoralty as well as his seat in council when he went down to outsider Campbell Newman at the 2004 election.
Now Newman’s replacement, Graham Quirk, is taking the same risk. By exchanging his ward for the mayoralty, he risks losing all when defending his job against Labor’s mayoral candidate Ray Smith in the 2012 poll. (Maybe current opposition leader Shayne Sutton would have had a shot if she’d known her opponent would be the little-known Quirk instead of the popular Campbell Newman.)
But taking on a parliament from outside will be tougher than a council. Newman used to sit in the public gallery at City Hall to hear himself being ridiculed, just as Ray Smith is nowadays watching mutely from the current council gallery.
Parliament is a much more professional and hard-headed league than local government. Members may say what they like about outsiders under parliamentary privilege, a right not shared by city councillors. Newman will no doubt endure considerable fire from Queensland’s premier and ministers in the months ahead, and the media will be free to publish whatever accusations are raised.
It’s going to be a fascinating few months. And if Councillor Newman becomes Premier Newman, it may signal a move towards presidential politics in Australia and a dent in the long-standing edifice of the Westminster system.